There is neither any dearth of well-researched and well-preserved material on the early days of Islam, nor of historical accounts of the rise and fall of Muslim empires and dynasties. The paramount challenge for any historian attempting to write on this subject yet again, is to discover a fresh angle or interpretation. Ali Mahmood — politician, businessman-cum-author and thinker — takes up this humongous task and comes out with flying colours.
The voluminous 528-page Muslims — The Real History — is Mahmood’s second book. Its first and so far only hard-back edition was printed sometime in 2017. His first book, Saints and Sinners: Why Some Countries Grow Rich, And Others Don’t, was published in 2013.
In his second book, the author takes the reader on a whirlwind, captivating tour of Muslim history, from the days of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to the emergence of a new generation of freedom fighters and nation builders in the 20th Century. And yes, there is also a sprinkling of post 9/11 events and how the US-led war on terror impacted Muslims.
In one volume, the author has showcased the rise and dominance of different Muslim empires in various parts of the world over a period of one thousand years — the golden era — along with their downfall and conquest by the European powers from the 17th Century onwards. After three hundred years of defeats, indignities and exploitation, the saga of Muslims took a new turn in the 20th Century. They started to fight back. New Muslims states were born and great leaders fought for their people — from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. And the two World Wars acted as a catalyst in liberating many Muslim lands, though a number of these young states remain bogged down by internal contradictions and are manipulated by the Western powers.
The canvas of the book is vast. The Muslim epic is breathtaking.
Starting from the early days of Islam, the author objectively identifies key turning points and critical junctures of Muslim history in broad strokes, lacing his narration with interesting anecdotes and insights.
The reader is taken on a fast-paced-journey. One gets a bird’s-eye-view of the period of the first four ‘righteous caliphs,’ followed by the glorious and magnificent empires of the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Timurids, Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. But the book is not just a paean to bygone days. The author objectively highlights the internal contradictions and rivalries among the leading figures of those times, the structural weaknesses of these empires and the reasons why they collapsed one by one.
Mahmood’s writing style is lucid and gripping. He packs a lot of punch in every sentence and crisply written paragraph. Given the constraints of space, he manages to paint characters effectively. He introduces Hazrat Umar (RA) thus; “Umar was a hard man. Hard on others, even harder on himself. This stern, austere puritan was amongst history’s greatest leaders. Strategist and administrator without equal, he built a civilisation and created an empire that endured for a thousand years. He was willing to pay the price for his beliefs. His justice was absolute — no privilege, no favour, equality for all before the law. When his son was found drunk, the law was mercilessly applied — his son was lashed, eighty strokes without remission. The lashing killed the boy.”
And one finds such brief and incisive character sketches and anecdotes woven all through the book, giving readers interesting insights, yet leaving them craving more. But the author briskly draws them to another empire, another era, another story or another personality in this page-turner.
Unlike those historians whose heavy-weight academic works are meant only for other academics, Mahmood’s ‘Muslims’ cuts through this barrier. His book is as much for common readers as it is for scholars — à la William Dalrymple. Once you start reading the book, it is difficult to put down.
While the author captures the broad trends and direction of Muslim history, he also underlines the Muslim contribution to the world in terms of science, medicine, philosophy, art and architecture. While Europe was slumbering in the dark ages, civilisation was thriving in Muslim lands.
He celebrates the contribution of Muslims to knowledge in a dedicated chapter. “But perhaps the greatest of the great was al-Khwarizmi the mathematician, from whose name the term algorithms was created — to describe a set of numerical calculations critical to software design, modern engineering, computers and smart electronics. Al-Khwarizmi’s greatest contribution to mathematics was the simple zero which he learned from Hindu mathematicians of India.”
There was political order, justice and tolerance as well as grandeur. For example, he writes about the court of Harun al Rashid thus: “The court… is the stage setting of the Arabian Nights, the Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade. It was a time of culture, romance, brilliance and above all, extravagant luxury. Ambassadors of kings from Asia and Europe marvelled at the splendours of Harun’s lifestyle.”
In Muslim civilisations, slaves were not just treated well, but could build careers and become masters and rulers, establishing their own dynasties. Religious minorities, including Jews and Christians, could climb up the social ladder and were allowed to hold important positions without the fear of being persecuted — barring times of war or if found breaking agreements or changing their allegiance.
Mahmood weaves the thread of a shared common history based on faith among people inhabiting different regions, belonging to distinct cultures and ethnicities and separated from one another by time and space. The only common and binding factor remains religion, which often proves too weak to hold them together, resulting in assassinations, conflicts and wars. Yet conceptually and ideologically, it overwhelms the hearts and minds of many Muslims even today.
The book also sheds light on almost all major, bloody conflicts between Muslims. Just to quote one; “Almost a century later (after the tragedy of Karbala) the Hashemites had their revenge when the Abbasids… invited the Umayyads, almost a hundred of them, to dinner and clubbed them to death; their corpses together with those wounded but not dead were covered with a huge carpet and the banquet continued amidst the stench of the dead and groans of the dying.”
The book discusses the tradition of fratricide among the Ottomans, one of the factors behind their decline. Wars for the throne and power tussles among brothers remained the hallmark of Muslim empires and dynasties all throughout history, contributing to their weakening and eventual demise.
And Muslims is not just about the history of men. Prominent women played a vital role all through history — starting from the days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to the modern era. Women were in decision-making positions, at times they wielded the real power behind the throne and at other times remained clearly in the forefront. The author manages to drive home this point effectively.
The last 10 chapters, out of 29, are dedicated to the revival of Muslim states, starting from the birth of modern Egypt and the reincarnation of modern Turkey following the decline and demise of the once mighty Ottoman Empire. The author takes the reader to the roller coaster history of Muslims in the 20th Century, when new countries were being created and larger than life personalities such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Faisal, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi redefined and rewrote the history of Muslims, winning them independent homelands.
These leaders — especially Ataturk, Nasser and Jinnah — had huge influence as role models for many modern day Muslims.
However, caught amidst hostile neighbourhoods, conspiracies hatched by Western powers and the general backwardness of their own populace, many of these Muslim states remained vulnerable and volatile. While the plant of Western democracy and concept of human rights failed to flourish in Muslim lands as objective conditions were not favourable, the Muslim leadership also failed to create institutions and systems fitting their own requirements. Foreign interference remained a factor behind its decline as the Muslim world tumbled from one crisis to another. And this story continues.
For students and scholars of history and politics, Mahmood’s book is not just a treasure trove of information, but it also offers a new perspective as it attempts to find unity in diversity and tell the story of Muslims through the ages in a single thread.